story submitted by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Athletics Department
Legendary Westark College men’s basketball coach Gayle Kaundart and his longtime assistant Jim Wyatt built the Lions into a junior college power in the late 1970s and early 1980s by tirelessly crisscrossing the Arklahoma area in search of talented players.
The coaching duo had a knack for finding those talented but sometimes overlooked players and turning them from rough-around-the-edges junior college prospects to NCAA Division I recruits.
When they found such a player, it was just a matter of when they could get to watch them play because how they were going to get there was seldom, if ever, a problem. Herbert “Bert” Wright made sure of that.
Wright was a graduate of Lake City (Ark.) High School and Arkansas State University, but when he moved to Fort Smith in 1961, he quickly became the city’s biggest adopted native son and one of the biggest fans ever of Westark athletics.
As Westark (now UAFS) began its rise to national prominence in junior college men’s basketball, Wright was always along for the ride, often with a bird’s-eye view from the cockpit. Wright was, among many things, a pilot and often flew the coaching staff to scout potential recruits.
“He was a person we could call when we needed something. We never got a ‘no’ because he was always willing to help,” said Wyatt, who went on to serve as Westark athletic director for 16 years (1982-1998) and director of the fitness center for five years (1998-2003) until his retirement.
“His home was open to our players, our fans and all of our athletic staff. The one thing that impressed me about Bert was his continued support over the years. It never seemed to waver. He attended all of our home games and many of our road games.”
On one occasion, Wyatt recalled, Wright endured a turbulent flight on his way to see the Lions play in an NJCAA Region II playoff game on a Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City but still managed to get to the game.
“He decided to fly over there, and as he passed over Shawnee (Okla.), he lost power to his plane,” Wyatt said. “He had just looked down and saw the airport in Shawnee, so he banked and landed with no power. He then caught a ride into Oklahoma City and made the ballgame.”
That’s just one of the many fond memories Wyatt has of Wright, who passed away on Sunday morning (Mar. 11).
Wright, 77, was recently diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare but rapid degenerative neurological disease.
“He was such an avid fan, and we really appreciated everything he did over the years,” said Wyatt, who also served as Westark athletic director for 16 years.
Wright, who was a longtime employee of First National Bank, was well known as one of Fort Smith’s biggest ambassadors and civic leaders, tirelessly working to promote the city and often spearheading civic projects for the betterment of the city and its citizens.
Wyatt said that same passion carried over into Wright’s involvement in Westark athletics.
In 1974, he joined C.A. Fawcett in creating the Westark Century Club, the athletic program’s first booster club. With his banking background, Wright served as the first secretary/treasurer and managed the club’s finances.
Working alongside Fawcett, Wright was instrumental in fundraising and recruitment of new club members.
“Back in those years, we had a core group of about 12 or 14 men who met with us sometimes on a weekly basis and helped us contact people to raise money,” said Wyatt, who is a member of the UAFS Lions Athletic Hall of Fame. “We had to raise money to house and feed our athletes. Bert was one of those people and was very active in that part of our program.”
Wright’s support of the program didn’t end there, either. Wyatt said Wright often hosted get-together and cook-outs for the athletic department staff, college administrators and fellow boosters as a way to build camaraderie and show his unwavering support of the entire Westark athletic program.
“He was just a real ambassador for us,” Wyatt said.